This article is part of a series known as #30DaysOfThanks.


classic literature

We all remember our high school English classes, with the large hardcover textbooks full of crude sketches, and of the stained and wrinkled copies of Great Expectations and The Scarlet Letter. Even as a book worm myself, I admit that I often dreaded reading yet another classic from the literary canon.

Somewhere between taking my last AR test and earning my English degree, I began to love the classics. Now that I’m not required to read from literary anthologies anymore, I find that I’m grabbing them off the shelves by the handful. I’m thankful for classic literature, and we should all be. This Thanksgiving break, let’s set down our beloved magazines, paperbacks, and iPhones, and pick up an old favorite.

Classics slow us down. We live in a fast-paced world, and many of the newest paperbacks cater to this lifestyle. We can cycle through the latest crime thrillers and mystery novels like they’re magazines (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), but classics require more of our time and attention.

Classics slow us down. They settle us into a nice armchair, pour us a cup of tea (or bourbon, whatever), and let us process our way through the plot and language. Sometimes, this slow, careful reading is just exactly what we need to unwind after a busy day at the office.

Classics exercise our critical thinking skills. Pick up a collection of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and you’ll know you’re in for a challenge. Every time I read Four Quartets, I find myself extracting new ideas from the text. I highlight key passages, scribble in the margins, and dog-ear notable pages. I do this because the text invites me to. It asks to be pulled apart and reconstructed.

I can analyze the work line by line, appreciate the musical qualities of the poem, and if I’m feeling ambitious, do supplemental research on the work and author. Because classic works were written in time periods foreign to our current experience, we often must work to ground ourselves within the text. Taking these extra steps never gets old, because I’m continually learning to think critically about what I’m reading.

Classics are great teachers of style and form. It is crucial for writers to spend ample time reading and studying works of literature. One of the best ways for writers to learn about writing style and form is to study the “greats.”

In his popular (albeit, sometimes infuriating) essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” Donald Hall does make a solid point; that many authors of timeless works learned their craft by closely studying their predecessors. He points out, “…Keats stopped school when he was fifteen or so; but he translated the Aeneid in order to study it and worked over Dante in Italian and daily sat at the feet of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.” He goes on to mention, “Whitman read and educated himself with vigor; Eliot and Pound continued their studies after stints of graduate school.”

When we give classics our full attention, we can truly learn from them. A graduate degree in literature means nothing if we don’t complete the assigned readings, and complete them with our full attention. What’s more, many classic works are available in the Public Domain and can be found for free online, along with numerous essays and study guides that can help us understand the text, if we choose to use them. Anyone can enjoy and appreciate the classics with some time and effort.

This holiday season, I’m thankful for classic literature and its role in my journey of lifelong learning. Classic literature continues to inspire and enlighten us, and we cannot deny its presence in our lives. In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot says of the importance of studying our predecessors, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” With that in mind, pick up a classic this fall, and read it nice and slow.

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Which books are you most thankful for? Let us know in the comments section.